There is no shortage of information and advice on wellbeing enhancing activities. Indeed there is little I will say here that most people won’t already have heard to the point of ‘wellness fatigue’ (1). As Barbara Ehrenreich says,
“The pressure to remain fit, slim, and in control of one’s body does not end with old age - in fact,
it only grows more insistent. Friends, family members, and doctors start nagging the aging person
to join a gym, ‘eat healthy’’ or, at the very least, go for daily walks. . ..
The price of survival is endless toil.” (2)
I do share some of Ehrenreich’s scepticism of the unsubstantiated claims of the Health and Wellness industry and the illusion that we have agency over our bodies, minds, and even over the manner of our deaths, and yet in our modern world filled with countless inventions designed to prevent us from exerting ourselves there is really no avoiding the stark choice “get busy living or get busy dying” (3).
And so what’s the spiel on the benefits of practising tai chi? The late and much lamented (4), Dan Docherty observed,
“ . .. it is difficult to find a system of exercise suitable for persons of all ages, which requires little
or no special equipment, and which can be practised in a relatively small area either indoors or
Dan goes on to say that not only is tai chi a physical exercise but also acts as a catalyst to improve circulation, deepen the breathing and massage internal organs. Another practitioner, Neil Rosiak, elaborates further on nine major benefits from practising tai chi chuan (6). There is the focus on increased body awareness requiring the student to be attentive to posture and body alignment or the skeletal and muscular sequence involved in movements, which in turn develops balance and coordination. Then there is stretching and flexibility particularly of joints and tendons. As you move through the postures this places a demand on the large muscles of the legs and trunk as well as shoulders and arms thus increasing cardiovascular health. Strength increases come from both development of the physical muscles and also the ability of your nervous system to use and contract them. Rosiak says Tai Chi can help you in a variety of common sense ways, to manage body weight and maintain good healthy physique. The relaxed and effortless approach to developing body awareness/consciousness facilitates stress and anxiety reduction. The practice of the more physically demanding martial aspects evokes a sense of self assurance and confidence. Finally, there are the social aspects of group training in a relaxed and inclusive learning environment.
More recently we have the authority of Dr Michael Mosley of BBC’s ‘Just one Thing’ (7), who concluded that one can benefit as much from the slow, gentle movements of tai chi and Qigong as jumping about with Zumba! And how does tai chi do this? Dr Jet Veldhuijzen van Zanten, a senior lecturer in biological psychology and part of Mosley’s research team, concluded:
“We have found that doing a session of Tai Chi leads to similar increases in work for the heart
as moderate intensity exercise. .. .. So even though it might not feel as difficult as when you are
doing faster movements, your heart is working hard. This will have benefits to the health of your
blood vessels and make them more elastic.”
Yes, all very positive and encouraging but tread carefully, health and wellness are big business (8) and tai chi and qigong are part of that. There are lots of studies (9) proclaiming the scientific basis for the very broad benefits of movement ‘therapies’ (10) such as Qigong and Tai Chi. However, a number of reviews of the research highlight that the results of these studies are mixed, numerous proposed benefits may be identified but with varying levels of evidence and confidence. The scientific basis appears to remain elusive (11).
On a more banal level I asked those attending the Govanhill class to quantify the benefits or, what they might have gained from attending the tai chi class;
“The Tai Chi classes are helping with my balance and get some basic strength and resilience. I have dystonia, concentrating on physical exercise makes me feel less disabled and gives me the energy to do more things. .. The regular class helps me to timetable my day.
The class itself is always helpful, and when I can attend, I notice that my walking afterwards is always improved, and I am more sure footed. There is mental discipline in Tai Chi, and also in getting to the venue and back.”
“I was looking for a Tai Chi class close by, as because of a slightly dodgy back, I can’t walk so far. Discovering this class was a Godsend! I really enjoy doing gentle movements together.Tai Chi is my moving medication.”
“Initially I found the whole experience of tai chi quite challenging (coordination difficult, too many movements!), but with continued attendance and some practice out with class sessions, I feel I have improved quite a bit. The form is lovely to perform with others.
I like the range of exercises and movements within the class, it all help to develop the tai chi form, but the exercises are helpful in breaking down the movements into bite size chunks and it adds variety to the class.
Tai Chi gives me a physical awareness but I also feel calm and relaxed when doing the form.”
“I really enjoyed the Tai Chi classes. It's good to have a little gentle exercise to help with fitness and balance. It's also nice to interact with nice people and have a bit of a chat. I would recommend these classes to anyone wishing to get out and meet people and get more fit and healthy”
“It’s a good laugh. If you are physically dyslexic like me then this class is for you. ”
“I enjoy it. I have a yearning to do it. I’m getting a bit stiff and wobbly but it’s helping with that and I’d hate to have nowhere to do it.”
It is really important to emphasize that any amount and any kind of exercise is good for the individual’s health and wellbeing. A crucial ingredient is that you enjoy whatever exercise activity you engage in; do you actually feel good doing the activity? Even the highly sceptical Barbara Ehrenreich (80 years old) ‘enjoys’ going to the gym and working out,
“. . I continue to elude unnecessary medical attention and still doggedly push myself in the gym,
where, if I am no longer a star, I am at least a fixture. In addition, I retain a daily regimen of stretching,
some of which might qualify as yoga. Other than that, I pretty much eat what I want and indulge my
vices, from butter to wine. Life is too short to forgo these pleasures, and would be far too long
without them”. (12)
And what’s so special about tai chi? It is an art form that facilitates creative and efficient ownership of one’s presence in the world, a conscious presence given expression in stillness and motion. Qigong and tai chi practice embodies the pursuit of harmony, harmony of mind and body, in the moment, synchronizing mind and body to rhythm and flow of purposeful movement. Achievement of this goal will be a reflection of the attention given and the time and effort put into your endeavour. And even then it’s a never ending journey, or as Zen Master Shunryn Suzuki tells us,
“After you have practiced for a while, you will realize that it is not possible to make rapid,
extraordinary progress. Even though you try very hard, the progress you make is always
little by little”. (13)
1 Wellness fatigue
It’s a phenomenon that can be broadly described as being 110 percent done with being “good” about your lifestyle, fitness, and health conditions. .. “I so badly desire to participate in all of the healthy suggestions, though it has become anxiety-producing instead of relaxing,”
2 ‘Natural Causes’, Barbara Ehrenreich
3 Shawshank Redemption
5 Cheng Tin-Hung & Dan Docherty
6 Neil Rosiak https://neilrosiak.com/tai-chi-benefits/
7 Michael Mosley puts Tai Chi to the test
8 Barbara Ehrenreich (2018)
9 A recent “compelling body of research” . .. . .
10 Movement-Based Therapies
11 A Comprehensive Review of Health Benefits of Qigong and Tai Chi
12 Barbara Ehrenreich (2018) Natural Cause
13 Shunryu Suzuki (1970) Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
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More on the Govanhill Baths tai chi classes